Any individual person’s journey through life might at first glance seem to be no more than one of steady growth and development from the moment of conception to the moment of death. The notion of such a rigidly continuous course of progress, however, takes no account of a number of significant phenomena in each person’s life. It would be easy to believe, for example, that an adult is in general more ‘developed’ than a child. But it could with equal truth be pointed out that adults attain their multitude of faculties and capacities only to go on to lose them.
The childhood years – during which new and sometimes painfully affecting experiences must continually be committed to knowledge and memory – may be relived as, in later life, one takes on the cares and responsibilities of looking after children. Moreover, what one has learned may need to be recalled any number of times during a lifetime.
It is a child’s parents who teach the child what is and what is not acceptable. Later, the task of education can be taken over by someone else, and later still by others, until once the children have become more mature they can themselves make critical marginal notes about it all – and if necessary make allowances for their teachers.
This vivid experience of cycles has the comforting consequence that the finite nature of individual lives need in fact come to no definitive end: one can live on in (the memory of) one’s offspring.
Each plant and animal, from the smallest unicellular organism to the tallest tree, has a life cycle that ensures the continuity of the species. The human race is no exception to this biological rule. Just like other mammals we begin life, grow to maturity, reproduce ourselves and nurture our young until they are independent and can themselves reproduce.
Individual, family and society
Human beings are social animals. During their long childhood, individuals grow towards maturity by learning the complicated behaviour they will need in order to survive among their fellows. No other animal species undergoes such a complex learning process as the human being; nor does any other species have such a long period of immaturity during which the young are dependent on their adult parents for sustenance, protection and teaching. Each phase of a person’s life has its own characteristics. In addition to the normal physical and mental changes that occur throughout life, changes also occur in an individual’s relationship to the environment. Human beings live in many different forms of society throughout the world, but each society is composed of intricate networks of relationships of people at all stages of life. In this way, one generation passes on its experience and knowledge to the next. Some social groups are composed of people at the same stage -youth or old folks’ clubs, for example; other groupings include people of different ages with other points of correspondence. The family is probably the most important, and the most interesting, area in which people at more than one stage of life relate closely to each other.
This communal form of living together is most prevalent in Western society. It usually consists of a man and a woman, between whom exists a more or less lasting, socially acknowledged (sexual) relationship; and of children who have either resulted from this relationship or are considered by the man and woman as theirs through the process of adaption. Changes are constantly occurring around and within the family. For example, at the present time it is rare for the family unit to consist of more than two generations, whereas formerly three or four generations were not uncommon. This results in the members of a family becoming more independent of the traditional strong social ties of the extended family, the neighbourhood or the local town or village. Nevertheless the family continues to function as a major social institution.
The unborn child spends nine months developing in the womb, protected and nourished by its mother. The risk of foetal death fromis extremely high, occurring in about ten percent of pregnancies, although most miscarriages result beacause the foetus is in some way abnormal. Miscarriages from falls or other minor accidents are rare, because the foetus is well cushioned inside the uterus. The most revolutionary change in our life occurs on the day we are born. Birth is a traumatic experience, presenting risks to both infant and mother. However, our improved standards of living have led to a greatly reduced foetal mortality. Modern obstetrics too has played its part in making birth safer, although some would say that it has now overstepped the mark in some areas and is intervening in the process of birth too much.
Congenital abnormalities mean that some babies are born less than perfect, although they may still be ‘perfect’ in their parents’ eyes. The human race, able in developed countries to keep many severly abnormal children alive, is nevertheless divided in its feelings: there has been a movement to provide abortion on demand for any foetus in which an abnormality has been detected through the use of modern diagnostic tests such as amniocentesis or ultrasound. Abortion can also be made available for unwanted babies, which is a matter for heated debate. Infancy is a time when considerable care must be lavished on the child if he or she is to survive. Unlike many animals that are independent from birth, the human baby cannot even move around. He can suck milk to sustain his life but this milk must be provided; a human baby cannot go and find its own nourishment. Similarly, protection from the elements – heat and cold – is essential.
The age-old argument persists over whether genetics or environment – nature or nurture – is more important in shaping a child. There can be no disputing that both have their part to play. A baby’s personality often emerges soon after he is born; it is well known that the way a baby behaves affects the way his mother treats him and vice versa. The infant’s ability to smile at the age of two months plays an important part in strengthening the mother-child bond. An infant smiles and coos at its mother who pats and vocalizes in return, thereby stimulating an even more enthusiastic response from her infant. So every infant has some innate qualities that he brings into the world with him, whereas much of his development may be assisted or retarded by outside influences. Childhood is spent growing in every dimension. Physical development continues and varies in each child according to his inborn genetic pattern, his environment, his state of– both emotional and physical – and even the time of the year. Intellectual development depends both on the child’s genetic make-up, including his natural level of curiosity, and on the opportunities he is given by his parents, teachers and others around him to learn. His emotional development, too, is intimately bound up with his environment, although different children find different ways of coping with the various situations they encounter. The awareness of a higher universal power or code of morality provides a base for the young individual’s future spiritual development. This is usually dependent on those around him conveying their innermost beliefs in a way he can understand. Throughout childhood an individual to a certain extent models his future behaviour on what he ob- serves around him. The ‘immature adult’ is learning how to behave in a society run by adults. He is serving his apprenticeship so that he will, in time, be able to contribute to society in work and leisure time, bringing up children in his turn, and caring for others as he has been cared for.
Adolescence can be a confusing time. An interest in the opposite sex dominates matters, although the young person is not yet physically, emotionally or psychologically mature. In the eyes of the law in most Western societies, the older teenager is capable of a legal sexual relationship, of marriage, of holding down a full-time job, of voting, of dying for his country, and of obtaining a mortgage. Yet if he is living with his parents, he is still likely to be treated as a child in some respects; at times it is likely that he will still behave like one. It takes parents with insight to treat their adolescent offspring in a caring and sensi- tive way, enabling them to feel their way towards adulthood but at the same time allowing them to retreat into childhood when this seems necessary. The sex drive is high at this age, but the adolescent may not feel able to express it. His environment or his upbringing may constrain him. Conversely he may run into problems with a relationship that develops faster than he wants, or that goes wrong. Adolescence is a time for great aspirations and ideals, for falling in love with people and ideas. But it is a time for disillusionment as well. Because of its fluctuating passions, its emotional highs and lows, adolescence is often a difficult phase for families. It can also be highly rewarding. An additional problem is caused by unemployment. Increasing numbers of school leavers are finding it difficult to obtain work. Because work encourages a sense of responsibility for one’s actions, it contributes to an individual’s feeling of self-esteem and confidence. A young person without a job may lose confidence and become dissatisfied with life. This can retard his maturation into adulthood.
The dictionary defines an adult as ‘one who is grown up or mature’. Many adults, however, while physically and even intellectually mature, may never achieve emotional, spiritual and psychosexual maturity. Throughout adult life, development may continue in each of these areas, sometimes smoothly and sometimes in a stepwise fashion, spurred on or retarded by circumstances and by past experience. A well-balanced adult is resilient enough to be able to cope with the successes and pitfalls of life, provided he has adequate support from society. He is capable of contributing fruitfully to the community through work and leisure activities, whether inside or outside the home. The balanced adult also finds his place in the network of society, although he may believe it is his duty to try to modify some aspect of it. Most children are conceived and raised by a mother and a father who have chosen to live together and to have a sexual relationship. Today many couples use some form of contraception to plan their families, and this has brought about a radical change in the structure of Western-type society. A large percentage of women are returning to some form of employment after childbirth. Some resume work only a matter of months later, although most wait a few years, usually until their children have started school. It is argued by some that raising children is more stressful today than in the past. As geographical mobility increases, young parents tend to move away from the area in which their own parents live. Also, the divorce rates have soared over the last fifteen years; the institution of marriage as the stable bedrock of society is not as firm as it once was. It is often argued that the growing child needs parents of both sexes to model its behaviour. In this respect running a one-parent family after a divorce may seem rather a deprivation. On the other hand there is no sound evidence that children are always better off with two parents. If one parent chooses to give all his or her attention to the child, this is better than raising it in disharmony where the two adults are constantly quarrelling.
Middle and old age
Both men and women are capable of reproduction for a comparatively long period of their lives. Even past the reproductive phase, they can continue to play a valuable role in ensuring the success of the human race. To the physical and emotional changes of the female (and male) menopause is added the realization that life is half over. To balance this, the practical aspects of life become less complicated. Children are increasingly independent, perhaps leaving home; careers settle down; financial worries are often less acute. The middle-aged and elderly make an important guiding and advisory contribution in many societies. In the developed West this is unfortunately less so, and the elderly are less valued than they might be. The older a person becomes, the faster time seems to fly. Those who have taken care to cultivate a spiritual or philosophical awareness are likely to find the prospect of old age and death less frightening. A sense of having made your existence meaningful and worthwhile , of having done the important things in life -whatever you may have decided they are – is perhaps the best preparation for the final act of life’s drama.